World-acclaimed linguist and language educator Dr. David Nunan shares his own personal learning experiences from his 30 years in the classroom.
ONE of the joys of being an English language teacher for non-native English speakers is the opportunity to meet a diversity of individuals from different cultures and walks of life. Over the years, I have taught (and learned from) thousands of students of all ages and backgrounds. Occasionally I bump into former students and listen eagerly to the stories they tell me about their lives, from their successes and failures to their triumphs and tragedies. Once or twice at the end of a conversation, a former student has said, “Thank you for teaching me. You changed my life.” Hyperbole, perhaps, but for a teacher nothing is more rewarding than that from a former student.
I recently traveled to Tokyo to give a talk at an event organized by one of my publishers. The event took place in the meeting room of a city hotel. During the talk, I had noticed a Japanese gentleman sitting somewhat apart from the rest of the group in the last row of chairs in the room. He was older than most of the rest of the audience and better dressed. He looked less like a teacher than a middle-aged businessman. After the talk, some of the more enthusiastic listeners came up and plied me with questions. Rather than leaving the room, the middle-aged man approached and hovered on the fringe.
When the last of the audience had drifted away, he came up to me rather diffidently and offered his hand. “Dr. Nunan?” he asked.
—“That’s right,” I replied.
—“You don’t remember me, do you?”
I had to plead guilty to the question. I had no idea who he was.
—“I’m Kenji,” he said. “I was a student of yours all those years ago in England. I saw your talk advertised in the newspaper and came along to say hello.”
I looked at him again and recognized in his middle-aged face the vestiges of the young man I had taught all those years ago.
Strangely enough, I had thought of him from time to time over the years. He had been a memorable student, not only because he was the only Asian student in a school dominated by Europeans but because he was a remarkable learner. I remember the day in the middle of the term when during a class break he shocked me by announcing that he was leaving the school.
—“Why, Kenji? You’re my star student!” (I may have exaggerated slightly but it wasn’t far from the truth.)
—“I’m going to London to study picture framing,” he said.
This had me even more confused. “Oh, so you’re not leaving because you’re dissatisfied with my teaching or the school?”
—“Oh, no, it’s great. I’ve had a wonderful time and I’ve learned a lot.”
—“So why are you going off to learn how to frame pictures? I didn’t know picture framing was a passion of yours.”
—“Well, I’m kind of interested in it, but that’s not my main reason.”
—“So, in the picture framing course I’ll be studying with native speakers of English. My fellow students here are great, but at the school in London I’ll be developing new language skills.”
Kenji was a smart student. He had figured out (correctly) that I had taught him as much as I was able to and that it was time for him to move on. Initially, I was disappointed and feeling that I had failed him in some way. But later, when I thought about it, I realized that he had paid me a great compliment and taught me a lesson as well: Success as a teacher comes when a student says to you, “I don’t need you any more.”
As a young teacher still learning the ropes, I was lucky to have encountered Kenji. Like me, he was in his mid-twenties. But he was wise beyond his years. From him I learned several valuable lessons. The first, as I have already mentioned, is that success as a teacher is measured in terms of self-redundancy. The second is that learners are smart in many ways and we have a lot to learn from them. Thirdly, and in some ways most importantly, is not to make assumptions about learners based on biographical variables such as the level of formal education or ethnic background.
I have had many opportunities to recall this third lesson. I have taught students in Asia for much of my career and listened to teachers lamenting ‘my relentless rote learners,’ ‘my passive students who won’t open their mouths,’ and ‘my undergraduates blank slates – they don’t know anything.’
In one of his most famous novels, the English writer E. M. Forster used a phrase that has been much quoted. ‘Only connect,’ he wrote. If we can only connect with our learners, we will find that they are anything but blank slates. tj
This story appeared in Issue 270 of the Tokyo Journal.
To order Issue 270, click here.